Friday, 10 July 2020

By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - This month's surprise announcement in Myanmar of a planned national referendum on a new constitution in May and multi-party democratic elections by 2010 are all part of Senior General Than Shwe's game plan to hold onto power and ensure his family's interests are secured. The question now is whether or not the junta leader's health will hold out that long.


Than Shwe sent a clear message to his subordinates, including for junta number two General Maung Aye, that he intends to maintain his hold on power as Myanmar makes the move from military to civilian government, and also to the United Nations and international community that his plans - rather than outside mediation efforts - will decide the country's political future.

The announcement notably came after months of inertia inside the military hierarchy, as the 75-year-old Than Shwe was apparently hobbled by cardiac surgery and transfixed with efforts to keep in check his deputy and rival, Maung Aye. The junta's second-ranking official woke to hear the announcement on state radio and was not informed beforehand of the timetable for implementing the supposed democratic reforms, according to government sources in the capital Naypyidaw.
The planned referendum and elections indicate Than Shwe's new determination to press forward with the country's so-called "roadmap to democracy", which will ensure a continued role for the military in governance. "Than Shwe obviously now feels he is secure enough in his position ... to push on with some measure of reform," said the Myanmar academic Win Min. "His failing health may also have prompted him to move at this time, as he may fear that time is running out for him."
The move also comes at a time when internal pressures are mounting, including growing frustration within the army over the lack of promotions and pay rises, and a growing clamor from the country's business community for economic stability and liberalizing reforms. Significantly, the junta's top 12 generals are scheduled to meet to discuss political and economic reforms in the coming weeks.

If so, it will represent the first "quarterly" meeting of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in over eight months and the first since the military's brutal crackdown on Buddhist monk-led demonstrations last September.

They are also expected to discuss the reorganization of the military in the light of recent major intelligence failures and a growing number of desertions, especially in the country's ethnic eastern regions, according to military sources close to Than Shwe.

Some analysts contend there is growing dissension among the ranks, as the ailing Than Shwe becomes more reclusive and his top chief subordinates Maung Aye, who is seen as a potential rival to the top general, and General Thura Shwe Mann, a known loyalist, jockey for position.
A major turning point in the competition occurred nearly six months ago, when Maung Aye was replaced as the head of the junta's powerful Trade Council, right before the beginning of the August unrest. Maung Aye was also reportedly replaced as military chief during last year's protests, where Thura Shwe Mann took charge of security arrangements, including suppression of the demonstrations, and commenced chairing crucial National Security Council meetings on Than Shwe's orders.

Since the crackdown, however, the wheels of government have reportedly ground to a halt. "Ministers have been told directly by Than Shwe that he does not need to be consulted on any issue, other than those related to political or foreign policy issues," said a military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But because officials fear making any moves that could be perceived as a challenge to Than Shwe's power, decision-making is in gridlock, according to the source.
"There's total inertia in [the capital] Naypyidaw. No one dares make a decision, even in regard to the smallest matters without approval from the top, which is rarely forthcoming," a senior government official recently confided to a Western diplomat who spoke with Asia Times Online.
That is largely because until now Than Shwe has been preoccupied with personal concerns, including how to maintain power despite his declining health and how to ensure the dominant position of his family once he eventually passes.

"Than Shwe continues to follow his trusted approach - divide and rule," according to Win Min. "He did this successfully before, preserving his position by pitting Maung Aye against the then-military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt." Nyunt was ousted in a 2004 internal purge.

Divide and misrule

This time Than Shwe's "divide-and-rule" policy is becoming ever more intricate and difficult to hold together. "Than Shwe has developed a chessboard of counterbalancing influences, both inside the cabinet and the military hierarchy, to maintain an equilibrium that keeps Thura Shwe Mann in check and Maung Aye sidelined," a senior military source told Asia Times Online.

The players in the middle are represented by the Boards of Special Operations, or BSOs, which oversee the influential regional commanders, and factions within the cabinet led by a handful of older pro-Than Shwe ministers, including Planning Minister Soe Tha and Information Minister Kyaw Hsan. Together the groups are meant to act as checks and balances on Thura Shwe Mann.

This, however, is only a temporary measure, as most of the BSOs and older government ministers are expected to step down after Than Shwe carries out his planned shakeup of the military and government administration. This is expected to happen after the next SPDC quarterly meeting, but could be further delayed until after the Burmese Buddhist New Year, or Thingyan, in mid-April.
A series of damaging intelligence failures, including unsolved bombings in the new capital and in Yangon, and the failure to prevent last year's mass demonstrations, has prompted Than Shwe to undertake a major restructuring of the armed forces. Most significantly, he recently reappointed Major General Kyaw Win, the former deputy intelligence chief under ousted intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, on a 500,000 kyat (roughly US$80,000) monthly budget to run an intelligence training school.
"The junta's main concerns now are to improve military intelligence gathering and assessment," said a former European military attache in Yangon, who remains in close contact with sources in Myanmar and who spoke to Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity. Other diplomats in Yangon concur that intelligence operations are being beefed up ahead of the planned referendum in May.

Nonetheless, despite his carefully planned schemes, Than Shwe's position seems increasingly perilous. Maung Aye in particular has distanced himself from the top general and appears to be conducting a sort of campaign of civil disobedience. For instance, he recently ordered the mayor of Yangon to take down billboards across the town which urged people to "oppose those pessimistic ax-handles who are relying on America" because he preferred not to distinguish between foreign enemies.

More significantly, it is widely believed among diplomats and military sources that Maung Aye did not support last year's decision to shoot and kill Buddhist monks and would have preferred the demonstrations to have been suppressed through less-violent measures. "Maung Aye constantly manages to harass both Than Shwe and Thura Shwe Mann by blocking promotions or disrupting decisions," said a government official who requested anonymity.

At the same time, Than Shwe's health is believed to be deteriorating after he underwent a cardiac operation performed by Singaporean doctors in the new capital city last month, according to sources who have recently visited the military leader. It's unclear how well the junta leader has convalesced from the procedure and there are unconfirmed reports that he may require follow-up cardiac surgery in Singapore in the coming weeks.

"He periodically forgets things. He recently asked where several officers were, all of whom were sacked last year during the mass retirements of middle ranking officers," according to a government source in Naypyidaw. Than Shwe is known to suffer from chronic diabetes and regular bouts of hypertension and is believed to have suffered a mild stroke in December 2006 for which he flew to Singapore for treatment.

"For almost a decade now Than Shwe has refused to have his annual medical check-up done by [Myanmar] army doctors for fear that this would leave him vulnerable and in danger of being ousted, as it did to General Saw Maung [more than 15 years ago]," a former military doctor told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity.

For the time being, however, Than Shwe is still in control. But his grip on power appears to be slipping significantly at a time when his divide-and-rule tactics have sharpened antagonisms between his two likely successors and the country braces for some form of democratic reforms. A change in junta leadership is not inconceivable in the year ahead, a still undecided transition, which depending on who emerges on top, may or may not follow through on the current leader's constitution referendum and democratic election plans.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

Source: Asia Times online Ltd; February 26, 2008